Moroun's 'victory' is loss for everyone

Last week, I received a torrent of comment on my column about the astounding efforts by Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, to block a new bridge over the Detroit River, which would provide competition to his very profitable monopoly.

Virtually every corporate interest and political leader wants the new bridge, which would be known as the New International Trade Crossing. But Moroun has donated heavily to many legislators. And, on Oct. 19, the Senate Economic Development Committee voted 3-2 not to report a bill authorizing the bridge to the full Senate, even though Gov. Rick Snyder has made this a top priority. All three no votes were Republicans -- and all three have taken campaign contributions from Matty Moroun.

Here are some sample online comments:

* “Woof” asked: “So who were the three GOP scumbags who voted against it?”

The answer: Sens. Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, Geoff Hansen of Hart and Mike Kowall, of White Lake Township. They all accepted money from Moroun, as did one senator who voted for the bridge.

The Detroit Free Press has reported that Moroun family members contributed $9,700 to six of seven committee members, the only exception being Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.

The two Democrats on the committee did not vote at all. They said they would have supported the bridge had Republicans agreed to community benefits for the mostly desolate Delray area where the U.S. portion of the new bridge would go.

* Reader “Les” wrote: “Your editorial ... led me today to call the senators involved and I asked them if they thought that Matty Maroun gave them the money because they were good looking?

“I thought it tainted their whole involvement in the process. To their credit, most of them listened, except Mike Nofs’ office, who hung up. … If this is not bribery, it surely would be a conflict of interest.”

* “Concerned” commented: “Watching this unfold over the last year, you could see this coming, given the large expenditures from the Ambassador Bridge company on television and direct mail.

“There were enough half-truths and untruths from the bridge company that it confounded the public and scared the legislators”

* Reader “Duanel” disagreed with me: “ Mr. Power uses the classic innuendo journalism ... it is spin on both sides and everyone who thinks differently is diluting (sic) themselves.”

* Reader “Jeffrey” was frustrated: “I can’t begin to express my frustration over the political corruption in our state … I have written letters to my elected representatives and personally called them, but nothing seems to work. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to match Matty’s political ‘contributions.' Which begs the question, ‘Who do our elected politicians represent – the voters who elected them or the Matty Morouns ...?”

* “Joeblog” wrote: “Your commentary, like that of most media types, is incomplete and one-sided ... too bad that you have never calculated how much taxpayer money all governments have wasted so far on a project designed to try to force the Morouns to sell out cheaply so a bridge right beside the Ambassador can be built.”

Well, this argument is far from over. But all this raises a legitimate question: “What’s improper influence peddling, and what’s not?”  I’ve been observing politics in Lansing for nearly 50 years, and I cannot recall an instance in which a sitting legislator has ever been convicted of bribery. That suggests either lawmakers have been pure as the driven snow or that the Michigan bribery statutes are complicated and confusing and set a high bar against indictment.

I can’t -- and shouldn’t -- resurrect history. I can’t fix the Michigan bribery statutes. And I certainly don’t want to imply that legislators are on the take in this -- or any other -- matter.

But I can observe that all the campaign contributions flowing from Moroun interests are raising all kinds of questions about the workings of the political process in Lansing. And those questions risk impugning the reputations of some Michigan lawmakers.

Everybody -- skeptical Michigan citizens, legislators whose reputations are at risk, even the Ambassador Bridge company -- would be better off if a thorough public review of this mess would result in tightened standards that would prevent single-interest groups from dominating in important public policy debates with overwhelming campaign contribution strategies.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.

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Comments

John B. Czarnecki
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 9:29am
Unfortunately Senators Nofs, Hart and Kowall represent Mr. Mourn not the people of their district. As for the 2 Democrats what are they thinking. Those are separate issues and should not have been tied together. If they want to assist Deray then introduce a bill to help that area.
Jim Storey
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 9:48am
Well said, John. The bottom line is three Republicans and two Democrats acted to allow a private interest to prevail over the public interest and the creation of thousands of multi-year construction-related jobs in where else, Detroit!
Allan Blackburn
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 1:16pm
This is the same group of politicians who voted to end lifetime health care benefits for lawmakers after this present batch leaves office. These are the politicians who voted to retroactively end anything beyond four years for any cash assistance to impoverished persons in Michigan, placed a $5,000 means test to deny many persons food stamps in Michigan, voted to cut the length of time that Michiganders can collect unemployment in the State of Michigan, are soon to vote to eliminate taking care of catastrophically injured persons for life in Michigan, will ask to have public employees give up many of their benefits so that they can pander to big businesses, voted to put in emergency financial managers who have almost unlimited powers, voted to end collective bargaining in a roundabout way with eliminating the ability to collect union dues, etc., etc. Pretty soon we'll be a right to work state meaning that workers rights will be out the window and employers will be able to pay substandard wages which continue to erode the middle class. And we think these people can be trusted to not be bought by those that hold the largest amount of cash imaginable? What a laugh.
Thomas Brown
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 8:00pm
Mr. Blackburn has pretty much summed up this mess. Just keep taking care of old # 1. These people need the boot ASAP.
Joe
Thu, 11/03/2011 - 4:45pm
Well said. Why wasn't it a public bridge in the first place or do all our roads and bridges need to be turned over to private enterprise for toll roads?
Duanel
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 9:47pm
"And those questions risk impugning the reputations of some Michigan lawmakers." I wonder if it is possible that individual legislators might actually have doubts about such an issue and they may recieve contribution because of those doubts rather than the contribution are only to create the doubts. I wonder if any other single issue contributions have ever received this same questioning? I wonder if an orgainzation delivers a battery of campaign workers that live outside the legilators district that are all members of that orgainzation is considered a campaign contribution and if that would raise the same question ans risk of 'impugning the reputations of some Michigan lawmakers'? If Mr. Power needs a clearer defintion of bribery he may want to talk to a recent Detroit City Councilwoman who convicted. That case would suggest that it isn;t all that confusing fro those in Detroit.
Neil
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 9:57pm
I have no objection for Matty Moroun protecting his investment of the Ambassador Bridge from being put out of business. As soon as the new NITC bridge is completed and opened, there is nothing stopping Ontario from blocking the approach to the Ambassador bridge and shutting it down.
Wed, 11/02/2011 - 3:53pm
Perhaps you might also comment on the propriety of a foreign Government offering a $550M loan full of loopholes that is payable IF AND ONLY IF the Michigan Legislature approves a DRIC/P3 Bill that accomplishes Canada's objective. How many times higher is that amount compared with the amounts that the Bridge Company paid out over the years in legal campaign donations What if the Morouns had said we will give a politician a campaign donation IF AND ONLY IF he/she votes to kill DRIC. The press would be howling. But Canada can make such an offer to approve DRIC and the media applaud it. Absolute hypocrisy!
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/02/2011 - 7:14pm
If you really want to end this kind of political debacle raise your voice to end the current method of campaign financing. The Bridge today and what tomorrow? No contribution greater than $100. All contributions into a blind trust. Funds distributed equally ninety days before the election to candidates on the ballot. Add to this no campaign advertising allowed in advance of the ninety days and only properly registered campaign committees may purchase advertising - no other groups or organizations of any kind may purchase campaign advertising for ballot issues or candidates. Sure this will force the money into other outlets but those actions just might be prosecutable or subject to civil suit if exposed. Just think how rules like that would end this debacle called a bridge. Or, since the current bridge owners have refused to complete their agreed upon construction to allow the use of the new freeway ramps just end all public access to the current span and go back to ferry boats. That will be the death of most commercial interests in the state and put an end to investment of any kind in Michigan.
Tim Richard
Thu, 11/03/2011 - 4:19pm
Here in NW Michigan, I have never seen the case FOR a new bridge. I've seen nothing on why the governor wants it. The Grand Rapids media refer to the sstate as West Michigan, as if it were a separate state. I know why Maroun says he opposes it, but not why my beloved governor favors it. Please help.
Kathy Berquist
Thu, 12/15/2011 - 12:48am
No idea why the Governor wants it - why not have a private person foot all the bills. He should spend his time focusing on the disastrous state of our state instead of trying to just "win" a needless battle for face sake.